Saturday, July 14, 2012

TOP STORY>>Smoke detector in fatal fire was 9 years too old

Leader staff writer

The smoke detector at the Jacksonville duplex apartment where a family of five died from smoke inhalation after a small kitchen fire in March should have been replaced nine years before the tragedy, according to a recently released report on the tragic incident.

Funderland Singleton — the fiancé of mother Marilyn Beavers and father of their children Dequan Singleton, 10, Sydni Singleton, 9, Haylee Beavers, 6, and Emily Beavers, 4 — says he is still pursuing a lawsuit against the city and the Housing Authority, which leased the home at 3A S. Simmons Drive to them.

Singleton, a truck driver, was on the road when the fire occurred.

According to a report that was provided to The Leader in response to its Freedom of Information Act request, there was one smoke detector in the apartment and it “failed to operate.”

But maintenance men with the Housing Authority told investigators that the detector was going off when they discovered the bodies.

Stephen Ray, a criminalist with the State Crime Laboratory, wrote in a section of the 250-page report, “Based on visual examination of the wiring for the smoke detector, it appears that the wires have been cut.”

In a summary of the incident, Jacksonville FireMarshal Capt. Mike Williams wrote that the assistant fire marshal, Thomas Baldridge, contacted the detector’s manufacturer.

The company said the model had not been recalled, but it was made between 1990 and 1993 and had a 10-year life expectancy. It should have been replaced in 2003.

The housing authority’s executive director, Phil Nix, refused to be interviewed and, in an e-mail to The Leader, said he had no comment.

City officials have been advised by the city attorney not to comment on the incident.

Singleton has hired a lawyer and an investigator to find out what happened to his family.

He said, “There’s a bunch of stuff going around that isn’t true.”

Singleton said he was disturbed by the coroner’s claim that his fiancé was drinking on the night of the blaze.

The report states that her blood-alcohol content was 0.14 percent, or twice the legal limit for drivers. She did not have drugs in her system.

The children had not con-sumed drugs or alcohol, according to the report.

Singleton said he was upset when he heard the allegation about alcohol use.

He said, “I just hate to hear them say that. I’m not saying she never drank. With the kids around, that never happened. She would never drink around the kids. She would never disrespect them like that. She was a great mother.”

The report goes on to say that the range was on when firefighters finally entered the apartment, and apparently someone in the home had been cooking in the evening.

The fire marshal said the fire started on the stove and was contained mostly to the kitchen area.

Singleton didn’t believe that someone was cooking and said that his fiancé had purchased already-cooked chicken for dinner.

He said he has receipts to prove that and the family was eating ice cream when he called to check in around 2:30 a.m.

Singleton said, “There was no reason for her to cook. I don’t believe she was cooking.”

The estimated time of death for the five victims was not in the lengthy report and could not be confirmed by press time.

But Singleton said what he heard — that the family died before firefighters responded to the apartment for the first time at 5:50 a.m. on March 22 — is wrong.

Jennifer Gray, who lives next door in 3B, had called 911 because she smelled smoke.

The firefighters left after 30 minutes when they found no sign of a fire. Gray was told smoke had drifted from another fire across the freeway, about a mile away.

That fire leveled an unoccupied home at 3400 Northeastern Ave.

According to the report, firefighters did a walkthrough of Gray’s apartment, an external walk around the duplex and used a thermal imager, a device that detects heat.

They knocked on the door of 3A, but no one answered. So, they didn’t go inside.

Gray told a detective, according to the report, that she “didn’t think the firemen walked around the apartment complex,” and “the firemen were playing pranks on each other and not taking it seriously.”

She was told to contact maintenance with any other concerns. She reported the smoke smell to them about an hour later.

Maintenance men entered the apartment around 7 a.m.

They found three of the children in their beds. The mother and one child were in the bathroom.

The fire had gone out by the time firefighters arrived for a second time at 7:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire marshal wrote in the report that it is likely that Marilyn Beavers, the mother, put out the blaze because her arms were burned. None of her children were burned.

An internal investigation into the fire is under way.